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I'm (re)teaching myself Latin (I studied at school decades ago), and I've just picked up a book of excerpts from Ovid.

Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo,
sponte sua, sine lege fidem rectumque colebat.

This very first line, or part of a line, has me puzzled: looking around, most translations appear to favour "The first golden age planted ... "... but couldn't it be "The first age is planted with gold"? Or maybe even the meaning "hesitates" between the two meanings (or more than two).

A few thoughts occur:

  1. Perhaps Latin is stricter is use of tenses: in certain languages, e.g. French and to some extent English, you can use the present to mean the past, but maybe not in Latin. However, whichever way you interpret this first phrase, it appears that est will have to have a past meaning.

  2. Maybe there are also clues from just the way Latin-speakers habitually ordered their words, which at my level of pretty much beginner I won't have any real idea of.

  3. To have two words of an ablative expression separated by an nominative adjective belonging to a later noun may also be unlikely, for all I know.

  4. And... I haven't yet read thoroughly a few pages of the introduction of this book about metre of Ovid's verse, but maybe clues come from that too, in the sense that the trailing "a" in aurea may or may not be a "long" "a", which may or may not indicate the case Ovid intends. I.e. if aurea is ablative, then (as I understand it) it must then have a long trailing "a".

Hope someone can provide illumination!

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  • Also check out this question, which includes a translation of that first line.
    – cmw
    May 28 at 21:30
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None of the first 5 words in your passage is in the ablative case. As you note, scanning the line will reveal this fact.

Aurea is an adjective ('golden'/'[made] of gold'), not a noun ('gold'), and modifies aetas.

Sata est is passive, not active; so the first translation that you gave doesn't work at all (unless you meant to write 'was planted' instead of just 'planted'). Furthermore, it's true that the Latin perfect tense can describe a present state that arises from past actions; that there are instances where the perfect passive participle is used more as a mere adjective, so that 'is planted' isn't necessarily impossible as a translation for sata est; and that there are instances where authors use the Latin present tense to lend vividness to an account of past events. However, Ovid's describing events that are firmly in the very distant past, and, as a glance at the rest of the passage will show, he's using past-tense verbs to do so.

Aurea is emphatic because of its position. I'd translate the first 5 words as 'Golden was the first age that was sown' (or just 'The first age that was sown was golden'/'...was the golden age').

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    Thank you, this makes perfect sense. There are obviously languages, no doubt most languages, where the precision concerning consonants and vowels matters less than with Latin. It's interesting that the imperatives of the metre here are also powerful enough to reveal to a Latinist instantly that aurea here cannot possibly be an ablative noun. May 28 at 17:15
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    Note that adjective primus, -a, -um is sometimes used (by poets and in post-Ciceronian prose, according to Georges) adverbially, so you could read this as aurea primum sata est aetas, in English: “the golden age was established first,” or more freely, “at first came the golden age.” May 28 at 19:27
  • @mikerodent There are only two metrical possibilities for dactylic hexameter: dactyl or spondee. The second vowel is short, so the third has to be short, too.
    – cmw
    May 28 at 21:29
  • @mikerodent The word aurea cannot be a noun, because this form cannot in any way come from the noun aurum "gold". Instead, aurea must be a form of the adjective aureus "golden". The letter -e- makes it clear that it is not a form of aurum.
    – Cerberus
    May 29 at 1:34
  • @SebastianKoppehel. True. That's basically what I was doing with the translation(s) in parentheses. I don't think it's as accurate a reflection of the Latin, though, given the placement of aurea. I'd expect the prima to be first or otherwise made more emphatic than it currently is. Still, it works well enough for English idiom.
    – cnread
    May 29 at 1:34

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